As anyone who has ever attended, planned, or participated in a major event can attest, the crush in the run-up to the opening bell can turn into a blur. With 45 speakers, three days of events, and more than 400 attendees, this year’s Michigan Clean Energy Conference & Expo was no exception.
Which is why it was so odd for me when the blur stopped about a week before the conference launch as I wrote an introduction for our inspiring and dynamic energy efficiency keynote, Carla Walker-Miller. Reading through her bio, which is long and impressive, one simple phrase jumped out – Carla is dedicated to “changing lives through energy.”
Clean energy work can be highly technical. Megawatts, photovoltaics, kilowatt hours, and beyond – it is easy to get lost. Even 100% clean energy targets, solarization campaigns, Teslas, and home batteries can seem more about the equipment than the people whose lives they touch.
Which is why this conference felt so special, as leading local, state, and regional leaders took center stage, and we brought the focus back to the people whose lives are improved by clean energy and a smaller energy footprint.
Local Native American inspirational leader and environmentalist Holly Bird kicked off the conference with a beautiful blessing and song, sung in the Anishinaabe language, telling the story of the local land, people, and history.
[Video: Watch and listen to Holly Bird's song.]
One of her main points was that we are nearly all immigrants, people who have left lands elsewhere to come here, and in doing so lost our connection to the land. But, according to Holly, we have now made new connections with our adopted lands, evidenced by our local community, which is dedicated to protecting, preserving, and passing these lands on for generations.
Following Holly was Carla Walker-Miller, who started an energy company in Detroit in 2000, built it up, and then watched it crumble during the 2008 Great Recession. In response, Carla displayed the kind of personal resilience we look to promote at Groundwork. She built her company back to 100 Detroit area professionals who are helping rebuild the City of Detroit and, through energy, are touching thousands of lives in the process.
Carla also challenged the conference’s majority white, male audience to get serious about gender and racial diversity in their industry – not only as an equitable thing to do, but also as a recipe for productivity and success. She challenged Groundwork’s conference team to meet the 30% rule next year: build an agenda in which at least three out of every 10 speakers are female and/or non-Caucasian. We accept the Challenge Carla!
After Carla’s thoughts, conference speakers explored big picture trends like how fast renewables are growing in the United States and internationally and how cheap they’ve become. Keynote speaker Ken Davies from Microsoft joined sPower’s Jim Howell, local celebrity and prolific energy developer Marty Lagina, of Heritage Sustainable Energy, and Zach Anderson, from Wolverine Power Cooperative, who buys power for all Michigan cooperatives. Microsoft and sPower reviewed their 500MW project in Virginia. Marty discussed the current landscape for renewables in Michigan. Zach noted how inexpensive renewables – particularly wind – had become in Michigan. All panelists affirmed that, while local and small-scale renewables are valuable, we will need BIG projects to move the needle on climate change.
But the bigger you go with power systems, the less personal clean energy can feel. So we spent the afternoon talking with panelists from Detroit to Ann Arbor to Traverse City about the hurdles and rewards of working with small community groups to build projects that create local jobs, keep clean energy dollars local, and funnel benefits to the low- and middle-income families who need the benefits most. From community-owned smart streetlights, to solar projects on houses of worship, to homes so energy smart that owners don’t pay electric bills, it was clear that local solutions can compete with, and in many cases enhance, larger renewable projects to reduce cost, maximize value, and change lives.
I am inspired and optimistic to live where I do, in a community that values both BIG and LOCAL, and I see ample evidence of that spirit in the moments of my day. I sit this morning looking out at Lake Michigan while eating strawberries from the Bardenhagen farm, strawberries grown only a few miles from my home and next to the Bardenhagens’ new solar arrays. Soon I will hop on my bike, ride it to a nearby bus stop and head into town. My strawberries may cost a little bit more than those shipped in from California, and my commute into town may take an extra 30 minutes, and the local solar arrays popping up on homes, farms, and businesses may not be the cheapest source of energy around. But these local solutions employ the people of our community – our farmers, drivers, planners, electricians, roofers, and foundation layers. These local solutions create smarter, healthier, happier communities, communities that shine as beacons of independence, resilience, and do-it-yourself creativity.
So, Happy 4th of July week! Thanks to all the sponsors, speakers, and participants at the 2018 Michigan Clean Energy Conference. We look forward to working with you to go BIG AND LOCAL this summer and beyond.